Talking Pulp Wrasslin’: Essential Business & Empty Arenas

I wanted to do a follow up to my last Talking Wrasslin’ article after some time passed and I could properly analyze the changes and differences between the wrestling product that now exists in a COVID-19 world.

As many know, professional wrestling is now considered an “essential business” in the State of Florida, my home state. It’s a pretty controversial decision and one that is actually baffling when you look out how other entertainment and sports companies have been hit.

Sure, you could argue that these people aren’t athletes and wrestling isn’t a sport and they can film their shows in an empty arena. However, people still have to physically contact each other, constantly. With the film and television industries halting productions due to social distancing suggestions, I don’t think that you can really make the argument that professional wrestling should get some type of pass when actors in films and television shows don’t have as much direct contact as athletes in a wrestling match. But politics are politics and we all know who Vince McMahon is buddies with and those of us in Florida know that this buddy is also buddies with our governor, who runs the state where WWE’s Performance Center is located. But I’m not going to harp on about politics other than to add context to the current state of the mainstream wrestling business.

That being said, this also benefits All Elite Wrestling, as they are headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida and can now produce live shows, once again, within Florida’s borders.

Up to this point, World Wrestling Entertainment and All Elite Wrestling have had to produce their content in empty arenas or other locations where there isn’t a crowd. Most of the content has been pre-taped with long shoots in an effort to create multiple weeks worth of television, allowing the wrestlers and production staff to not have to travel nearly as much.

Both companies are essentially doing the same thing but there is a difference in how they are doing it and presenting it.

WWE has been filming TV at their Performance Center in Orlando but despite having million dollar production value, the product feels soulless and flat. It doesn’t connect well with the audience and this is pretty apparent when you look at how the ratings have dropped, even with everyone sitting at home now, desperate for content to watch on television or online.

AEW has filmed in an empty arena they own, as well as at a wrestling school owned by one of their wrestlers and backstage agents. The big difference and the advantage that AEW has is that they were smart enough to take some wrestlers from the back and put them around the guardrails outside of the ring area where they cheer and boo and get involved in the in-ring conflict. It creates crowd interaction even though the crowd isn’t actually comprised of fans. There’s a cool energy about it and it can also work to enhance stories, rivalries and the television show doesn’t feel like it’s taped in a morgue.

Granted, AEW wasn’t doing this and Jim Cornette suggested that they should in one of his podcasts. That very next week, they did add wrestlers to the crowd. But with most guys at AEW having beef with Cornette, I’ll doubt they’ll ever give him credit for the idea. And while they could’ve come up with this on their own, this alteration to their show suspiciously happened at the next broadcast.

Additionally, AEW has had the benefit of having Tony Schiavone and Chris Jericho on commentary. Jericho deserves a fucking Emmy but I don’t think they give those out for wrestling because it wouldn’t be fair to Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family. Sorry, Sheldon Cooper but you’d get the Buckshot Lariat from “Hangman” Adam Page on that awards stage.

AEW is killing WWE in the commentary game, right now. WWE just can’t top the great Schiavone and there’s no one WWE has on color that can come close to Jericho. If only WWE actually had Mauro Ranallo on a marquee show, they might have a chance. Sorry, Michael Cole… to fans, you’re never going to be that guy despite Vince McMahon being stubbornly convinced that you’re the voice of a generation.

I’ve kept watching both WWE’s Raw and AEW during the pandemic. However, Raw is really damn hard to sit through, especially for three hours, and it all just feels like filler until they can just go back to business as usual. It’s so bad that Raw is all I can do each week. I can’t watch Smackdown and I’d rather watch AEW than NXT, as AEW has more energy and is more engaging.

WWE was already getting shittier and shittier before COVID-19 hit and this pandemic certainly didn’t do it any favors. But it also sort of exposes how out of touch the company is with its own audience, as it just sticks to its guns, looks down its nose at its competition and won’t adjust their product to something similar to what someone else is doing. They’d rather die than adapt or follow the lead of a company they perceive as beneath them. At this point, they’ll be lucky if I can even get through another abysmal episode of Raw.

AEW, despite its current limitations, is still a show that I feel is worth watching and supporting. They’re actually trying really hard over there to make the best out of a bad situation. Their product is far from perfect but they seem to learn from their mistakes and adjust to new changes and challenges without ego being in their way. They certainly seem a lot less stubborn and are open to trying new things while not pretending that they’ve got the game figured out.

Wrestling is really weird, right now. But this is probably just temporary and things will slowly go back to normal. It’ll be interesting to see how these companies come out of this when the dust settles. Sure, WWE will still be top dog but I don’t think that they’ve won over new fans or impressed anyone with how they’ve handled all of this. Their attitude of “People will just tune in because we’re f’n WWE” isn’t a sound strategy and they are probably going to learn that the hard way.

But with rumors of them trying to sell, they might not care anymore. Granted, rumors are just that and this isn’t the first time rumors like that have surfaced. However, Vince McMahon is getting up there in age, despite him thinking he’s immortal, and with the XFL failing again (probably not his fault) and his kids might not wanting to take the reins, the future isn’t guaranteed.

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